In the twilight, four men approached what appeared to be a chicken coop on low stilts. One of them threw a light on the platform inside.
Dim outlines emerged, of a Lilliputian tennis court -- miniature serving boxes, miniature doubles alley. The little net gave the men a Brobdingnagian aspect. Someone produced a yellow foam rubber ball and started a leisurely rally, batting the ball with perforated wooden paddles.
Land of the Giants? No, it's the world of platform tennis.
Better known simply as "paddle," this mystery sport has been around since 1929. It was invented in New England to extend the short tennis season. The paddle court was placed up on a wooden platform to facilitate the removal of snow and slush.
Although the game has now gone public, with courts springing up from California to Bermuda, it still retains much of its original New England tradition and country club mystique. Touted as a sport for all ages, "paddle" is really a kind of tennis-like sanctuary for the middle-aged athletic.
While athletes in other sports peak in their teens or 20s, paddle players usually reach their prime somewhere between the ages of 30 and 40. A recent tournament held in Bethesda was won by Doug Russell and his partner Clark Graebener, who once ranked among the top 10 tennis players in the world. Over the hill at the top flight of tennis, they nevertheless dominate the pro platform tennis tour.
Paddle does have a way of breathing new life into an old athlete's bones -- and it isn't the sometimes cold air that does it. Since it's principally a doubles game (there are no singles tournaments), more emphasis is placed on teamwork and court savvy than on spectacular shotmaking.
Washington Bob Archer, a former top ranked Mid-Atlantic tennis player and recent paddle convert notes that, "paddle presents a completely different challenge. It's a cagier, more defensive game with a totally different tempo and strategy."
The "wire" can take credit for that. The tautly stretched 12-foot-high chicken wire fence that encloses the court gives the players a second chance to retrieve hard hit balls that may have handcuffed them or even shot by for winners. But it takes a while for tennis players to get used to the kind of rebound angles that squash and racketball players are more familiar with.
These second chances make for excruciatingly long rallies. In the pro ranks it's not uncommon to see as many as 40 hits before a point is finally scored. Which is why the sport requires not only infinite patience but also imposes a severe restraint on the urge to pound the ball.
Imprudently hitting the ball too hard or too short can lose you the point and earn you a fat lip. Overheads struck at maximum force carry back into the court and become newly transformed setups for defenders eager to go back on the attack.
This kind of instant role-reversal is anathema to the serving team. You only get one serve in paddle, but the servers are still expected to garner at least 75 percent of the points.
With two seeming Goliaths draped over a tiny net, it's not hard to see why they represent an almost impenetrable human fortress. Hard to hit through and difficult to dislodge with lobs (two steps and the overhead is within grasp) the defenders must often resort to a "blitz."
The "blitz" is a one man kamikaze mission with a rational purpose. The receiver hits an offensive return and storms in behind it to take on the two net men mano a mano. Should he fail to outduel them, or if the ball is hit past him, his partner can pick up the action in the backcourt and signal for his hauled marauder to return to the backcourt.
With the players bunched together like Siamese twins, on-court verbal communication becomes a pragmatic necessity, "Yours, yours," and "mine, mine" are barked out at regular intervals as overheads and other shots up the middle are assigned to the player with better position.
Newcomers stepping onto the gritty aluminum surface for the first time will marvel at the ease with which they connect. No more searching for the elusive "sweet spot" of a tennis racket: it's a mere eight inches from your wrist. Although backhands can prove troublesome -- the ball tends to feel heavy on the paddle, like a tennis ball on a ping pong paddle -- you have the choice of taking shots off the screen or running around to hit a forehand. (Two quick steps will do the trick.)
Fred Drilling, who teaches both tennis and paddle at the Aspen Hill Club in Silver Spring finds that tennis players switching to paddle are able to master the fundamentals of good doubles play -- rushing the net behind serves and volleying with authority -- like never before on a tennis court. "They play paddle the way they're supposed to play tennis," Drilling says.
Platform tennis costs are minimal. Paddles run from $10 to $40, and you don't have to worry about broken strings. A set of three balls costs about $5. You only need one per match because of the one-serve rule. No need to buy expense Italian sweat suits. Layered clothing is the in thing because it can be peeled off as the action heats up. And if you happen to be in Bermuda, where the sport is extremely popular, bathing trunks will do just fine.